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best practices

Dog School

June 30, 2019

It’s a well-known fact that we don’t deserve dogs. As a species, they are far in advance of human beings in all the values we most prize and seldom achieve: courage, loyalty, unconditional love, patience, resilience, perseverance, I don’t know where to stop. But we are fortunate in that by some quirk of evolution, our two species, human and canine, have been linked together for thousands of years (no offense to cats, but it’s as well known a fact that felines barely tolerate us). Maybe what we’ve been leaning away from since the dawn of civilization is what makes us most human, animals.

When my son was having some trouble in school, a student of mine suggested we get a dog. In fact, she and her family had been fostering a puppy, and they gave her to us. I’m not saying that this Chihuahua-Dachshund mix, a “Chi-weenie,” was a certified educational therapist, but soon after their “sessions,” my son’s attitude and aptitude for school greatly improved.

In the school where I teach, we have a lot of emotionally troubled, learning challenged students. When our school psychologist started bringing in therapy dogs, we all noticed an immediate reaction even from the most oppositionally defiant kids. Within a few minutes of being around the dogs, students would calm down, become more receptive, and smile—and it would last all day, into their classes, where they fidgeted less and paid attention more.

Soon, a lot of the teachers started bringing their dogs to school. Classroom management issues went down. Grades started going up. There’s science behind this. According to an article in School Planning & Management, “The simple act of petting a dog is shown to reduce blood pressure. Lower levels of stress hormones, like cortisol, and an increase in oxytocin are also associated with pet therapy and contribute to respiratory and cardiovascular health. In short, reducing feelings of anxiety and depression positively affects physical health.” I would add educational health as well.

Intermountain Therapy Animals has a R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) program that uses animal assisted therapy “to promote the improvement in human physical, social, emotional, and cognitive functioning.” A curriculum based on human and animal interaction has been adopted by over 4,000 schools in all 50 states (mutt-i-grees). Not only students benefit. Teachers and administrators often ask for time with the dogs to alleviate job stress. The special psychological bond we have with dogs has a great value for schools. True, some kids have allergies, although dog dander is minimized by washing after contact. Some kids are afraid of dogs, and we can investigate the calming effects of bunnies for them. But for all the high tech gizmos corporations foster onto schools, maybe the answer to higher achievement and happiness is curling up with a good book and a good dog.

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